The temperature dipped into the mid-50s Thursday afternoon, and the sky was dark gray, which made for familiar and welcome conditions for England’s World Cup team as it faced Uruguay in a loser-will-probably-go-home Group D match.
Unfortunately for English players and fans, they found something else quite familiar at Arena De Sao Paulo: A lethal striker named Luis Suarez, returning to the field for the first time since minor knee surgery in late May.
The Uruguayan forward plays for Liverpool and led the English Premier League in scoring this season with 31 goals in 33 matches. He was named the league’s Player of the Year, the first non-European to win the award. Five of his club teammates are in England’s starting lineup, so they knew full well what Suarez can do. He wound up breaking their hearts and severely hurting England’s chances to advance with a pair of goals in a thrilling 2-1 Uruguay victory.
It was the first time since 1970 that Uruguay beat a European team at a World Cup.
Suarez was buried under a pile of teammates after the final whistle, and then carried on their shoulders. They were returning the favor, because for the previous 90 minutes, it was Suarez’s shoulders on which the team rode in a tense game that included the first career World Cup goal for English star Wayne Rooney.
Suarez was in tears as he came off the field, saying he dreamed of scoring, and that the victory was in part vindication for the punishment and harsh criticism he endured in England for an alleged racial abuse incident in 2011 (which he vehemently denied) and a biting incident in 2013. He was banned 18 matches combined for the two incidents and paid hefty fines.
“We suffered in this match, but the important thing is that we won, which is what we wanted,” he said. “Now, it’s time to enjoy, rest and then think of Italy. I dreamed about these goals, and I told my teammates I would score. The truth is, I am savoring this emotional moment so much because of all I went through and all the criticism I endured.”
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabares was beside himself in the post-match interview. His team lost its opener 3-1 to Costa Rica and was written off by many experts.
“I could not have written a better script for the Uruguayan people,” Tabares said. “For us to finally beat a European team after so long. People said we wouldn’t do it. After losing our first game, to come back four days later and beat a former World Cup champion like England, and on the birthday of our national hero Jose Gervasio Artigas [considered the father of Uruguayan independence]. And for both goals to be scored by Luis Suarez, who one month ago had surgery on his knee … this win was full of symbolism for us.
“We proved we weren’t dead. Nothing is for sure yet, but we can breathe a little easier now.”
Costa Rica, Italy and Uruguay all have three points, but Costa Rica and Italy play each other Friday, and Costa Rica has a one-goal differential advantage over Italy and a three-goal differential over Uruguay. For England to advance, Italy has to win twice and England has to beat Costa Rica and get help with goal differential.
England coach Roy Hodgson had to answer difficult questions from the British press after the loss, including whether he plans to resign. England lost its opener 2-1 to Italy in Manaus.
“I don’t have any intention to resign,” he said. “I’m happy with the way the players tried to do their jobs. Results color everything. Any words on the subject would sound pretty empty.”
Hodgson said his team knew Suarez would be a handful.
“He was voted Player of the Year by almost everybody,” Hodgson said. “[Thursday] he was coming back from injury, so he was to some extent quieter than we’re used to seeing him. But two chances came his way, and as a top player, he took those chances.”
Suarez’ first goal, a header, came in the 39th minute, off a perfect cross from Edinson Cavani, the Paris Saint-Germain forward who grew up six blocks from Suarez in Salto, Uruguay.
Then, in the 75th minute, Rooney revived England’s hopes with his first World Cup goal in 10 games. Glen Johnson slid a low pass across the goal, and Rooney tapped it in. You could feel the weight lifted off his shoulders as the English fans among the crowd of 62,575 roared.
Ten minutes later, Suarez struck again. Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera punted the ball, England’s Steven Gerrard leaped and inadvertently backheaded it into the path of Suarez, who ran with it and knocked it in.
Before the game, Hodgson said: “A team can be organized or less organized, but the bottom line is always going to be, ‘What exceptional players have you got?’ An exceptional player can lift a team.”
Never was that more true than Thursday.